On a pleasantly sunny Sunday afternoon, just a few feet removed from a set of railroad tracks, the sounds of a hyperactive accordion can be heard dancing within a small, simple building. The room is packed with family and friends rejoicing in their mutual love for conjunto music, that traditional and charismatic mix of the German accordion and Latin-American guitar with deep roots in Texas.
It has been a little over one year since Rodrigo Gonzalez opened the Centro Cultural Viva Mexico here on Palentine Street in Jacinto City. The 38-year-old realtor has been playing the bajo sexto (12-string guitar) and the accordion since he was 15 years old. Conjunto music is in his blood, a tradition that can be traced back to his grandfather, Don Baldemar Elizondo.
Don Baldé was born in Pharr, Texas in the year 1926, but would soon relocate to General Teran, Nuevo Leon, a town just southeast of the Mexican industrial city of Monterrey. There he polished his musical talent on the accordion, and formed the group named Los Bohemios de Teran. He also married and had several children, who accompanied him as he worked as a migrant farm worker in Texas, California and Florida.
The family moved to Houston's Fifth Ward during the oil boom-and-bust years of the 1980s, and would soon hold lively jam sessions for friends and family. Don Balde's sons and grandsons followed in the family tradition, picking up the bass, bajo sexto, accordion and drums; one even went on tour at the early age of ten.
In 2002, he family independently released an album under the name La Rama Muzikal, just a few weeks before Don Balde's death. His legacy continues through the work of his family, especially grandson Rodrigo.
Today Centro Cultural Viva Mexico teaches on average about 40 students, for an enrollment fee of $30 and $25 per hour for lessons. Students can choose Wednesday or Friday evening classes (or both), and have the option of learning the accordion, bajo sexto, electric bass or drums.
Gonzalez calls his methods "performance-based teaching," providing hands on training and learning techniques through songs. The school has even invented their own music reading tab system, using diagrams to represent chords and scales, while different numbers and colors represent the corresponding buttons and fingers.
The school holds monthly jam sessions at the new location in Jacinto City, where students, both beginners to advanced, are allowed the opportunity to showcase what they have learned. The room is usually filled with supporters who stop by to cheer on their kids.
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Gonzalez admits that this is the best way he could think of to continue his family's musical legacy, by passing along his talents and knowledge to the next generation of conjunto musicians.
As we sit in his office, a nervous high-school kid who is up next to perform stops in to ask Gonzalez about the song he is playing, a lively track called "Tampico Hermoso." Gonzalez calmly looks over the music, giving him advice on where to start and stop the chorus. He tells the kid to relax, encouraging him to do his best.
That's a lesson we can all benefit from.
The next jam session takes place at the school this Sunday, February 23rd at 4:30pm. The Centro Cultural Viva Mexico is located at 10918 Palestine Street, Houston TX 77029. They can be reached at (713)922-1842.
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